Few would have predicted that Jari Kurri would one day be the highest-scoring European-born player in NHL history. As good a player as he was back home in Finland, such elite status was incomprehensible, as was an eventual spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Born May 18, 1960 in Finland's capital city of Helsinki, like most young boys, Jari Kurri played as many different sports as he could possibly fit into his schedule. "I played soccer, I was in track and field, I cross-country skied. We all played hockey back in those days outdoors," he recalls. "When I turned nine years old, I started playing with the club teams. I went on from there but when I turned 15, I realized I didn't have enough time to do all these sports so I had to make a decision. I was doing pretty well in the other sports but most of my friends were playing hockey. At that age, your friends are very important, so I followed them."
Kurri's knowledge of the National Hockey League was minimal — his hockey dreams involved representing his country. "We didn't see any (NHL) games on TV and there was very little in the paper so we basically just knew the big names like Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur. We didn't really have any clue who the guys were and what kind of players they were."
By the age of 16, Jari was playing with the prestigious Jokerit club, joining the senior squad the next year. By his third season, he had scored 23 goals and 30 points in 33 games with Jokerit. Those same three years, 1977-78 to 1979-80, Kurri was also chosen to play for the Finnish Junior National Team. At the 1978 European Junior Championship, Kurri scored a goal in double-overtime to beat the Soviet Union and give Finland the gold medal. Jari was named Best Forward at the tournament that year. In 1980, he led the World Junior tournament in scoring with 11 points, helping Finland collect the silver medal. His skills helped him earn a spot on Finland's 1980 Olympic Team. "I was only 19 years old and I had only played a few games with the National Team before that so it was a big thrill to represent your country," Jari admits. "Being the young kid, I didn't play too much but I really enjoyed it. I got drafted that year so maybe it was a big turning point in my career."
Kurri was selected 69th overall by Edmonton in the third round of the 1980 Entry Draft. "When I got drafted, I wasn't really planning to come over (to North America and the NHL) because I thought I would spend more time over here (in Finland) to play with the National Team to get some more experience to be more ready to come over," he says. "But we discussed it all summer long. They (Edmonton) had (fellow Finns) Risto Siltanen and Matti Hagman already so I figured those guys would help me with the language. Matti had played with Boston already and Siltanen had been with Edmonton for a year or two so I would get some help from those guys."
The transition was challenging. Jari, just 20 years of age, was leaving home for the first time, moving half a world away where the language, customs and hockey were different. "It took me a year to get to know the league, the systems and just being away from the old country, my parents and friends," shrugs Jari. "It's not just the hockey that's different but a whole different lifestyle."
Kurri got off to a slow start, as did the Oilers. HHOF Insider Gary Van de Broek from Ajax, Ontario asked why Jari intended to stay in the NHL for just a short period of time when he first arrived in Edmonton. "When I first came over, I told myself I'd give it one year." That year grew to eighteen years playing away from Finland, but it wasn't without its growing pains. "I had tough times in my first year," admits Jari. "I had 17 games without a goal playing with Wayne (Gretzky). It wasn't easy to go through that with the media, night after night. I had some tough times."
The spark of an idea — placing Kurri beside Gretzky — took hold around Christmas 1980 and, in spite of a few speedbumps early on, turned out to be one of the great pairings of NHL history. As a rookie, Kurri scored 32 goals and finished with 75 points in 1980-81. During his ten years with the Oilers, Jari never scored fewer than 32 goals.
The Edmonton Oilers were a group of young guys who grew up together. As close as they appeared on the ice was as close as they were off the ice, too. "We were all basically the same age," recalls Jari with a chuckle. "Glen Sather knew that we all needed to have some time to get confidence. It took some time but we realized we had some good players." Not just good players ... great players!
In 1981-82, Jari scored 32 goals for a second straight season, helping Edmonton finish first in the Smythe Division, but the Oilers lost in the divisional semi-final. The next season, 1982-83, Jari finished tied for eighth in NHL regular season scoring, passing the 100-point mark in a season for the first time, and was one of four Oilers in the top ten. The Oilers again finished first and drove all the way to the Stanley Cup final, but were devastated to watch as the New York Islanders carried the Stanley Cup around the ice.
Defeated but hungrier than ever before, Kurri finished seventh in NHL scoring in 1983-84. The team finished first in their division again, and there was no stopping the Oilers as they rolled over opponents on their way to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Jari's 14 playoff goals led all post-season scorers that spring. To cap off a remarkable season, Jari was voted onto the NHL's Second All-Star Team in 1983-84.
Once they'd tasted victory once, Edmonton relished the sensation again. Jari finished second to linemate Gretzky in regular season scoring in 1984-85, scoring a career-best 71 goals and adding 64 assists for 135 points, the most Kurri would collect in a single season. The Oilers were on a mission, and for a second straight spring, collected the Stanley Cup. Jari led all playoff scorers with 19 goals, also contributing 31 points in 18 post-season games. Kurri was named to the NHL's First All-Star Team in 1984-85.
1985-86 saw Kurri finish fourth among the NHL's scoring leaders, in spite of collecting 131 points and leading the NHL with 68 goals. But a Stanley Cup 'three-peat' was not to be for the Edmonton Oilers, who in spite of finishing first in the division through the regular season, lost in the divisional final. At the conclusion of the season, Jari Kurri was named to the NHL's Second All-Star Team.
Gretzky was the NHL's leading scorer in 1986-87, with winger Kurri second, scoring 54 goals and adding 54 assists. The Oilers were determined to capture the Stanley Cup once again, and steamrolled over the competition. When the smoke had cleared, the Oilers were Stanley Cup champions for a third time. Jari scored 15 goals to pace all playoff performers. He was named to the First All-Star Team by the NHL that summer.
The Edmonton Oilers' dynasty picked up a fourth Stanley Cup championship in five years to conclude the 1987-88 season. Although Jari's point production had dipped below the 100-point mark for the first time in five years (he finished with 96 points), his contributions were integral to his team's success, and nowhere was that more evident than in the playoffs where he collected 31 points, including an NHL best 14 goals to help the Oilers win Lord Stanley's prize.
When the headlines rocked the world, announcing that Wayne Gretzky had been traded to Los Angeles during the summer of 1988, hockey fans concluded that that was it for the Oilers. But nothing could be further from the truth. Even without Gretzky at centre, Jari still scored 44 goals and finished eighth in scoring with 102 points in 1988-89. But the postseason came to an abrupt end when the red hot Los Angeles Kings stopped Edmonton in their tracks. Nonetheless, Jari was a Second Team NHL All-Star that year.
1989-90 was Kurri's tenth year as an Edmonton Oiler. Gretzky-less but not leader-less, Kurri, Messier and Lowe navigated the Oilers through playoff waters and finished with another Stanley Cup championship, a fifth for Jari Kurri, who again showed his post-season mettle by accumulating 25 points in 22 games.
Jari's next move went right off the board. After wiping the champagne from his lips, he accepted a position with Milano of the Italian league for the 1990-91 season, but by '91-92, Kurri had returned to the NHL through a deal that sent the winger from Edmonton to Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia. Reunited with Wayne Gretzky, Jari enjoyed his four-and-a-half years with in Los Angeles. "With L.A., we went to the finals against Montreal," remembers Kurri, reflecting on the playoffs during the spring of 1993. "We lost, but we were so close to winning a Stanley Cup in L.A. When Wayne went to L.A., hockey was very exciting in California. I was very happy to be part of that."
Jari was traded to the New York Rangers with Marty McSorley and Shane Churla on March 14, 1996. "I moved to New York but I was only there for three months, so it's hard to say too much about that," shrugs Kurri. "But I could tell that it's a great town if you're doing well, but if you're not doing well, it's probably the toughest place in the world. They treat you very well. I had a good time in my three months there."
Prior to the 1996-97 season, Jari was signed as a free agent by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. "Playing with (Paul) Kariya and Teemu (Selanne), two young stars, was a great experience," smiles Jari. One season with the Ducks was followed by a 17th and final NHL season spent with the Colorado Avalanche. "I played with some great teams; class organizations," says Jari. "To end my career with Anaheim and Colorado, you can't complain. Those years and the players I played with in Edmonton, then Kariya and Teemu in Anaheim and Joe Sakic in Colorado -- a lot of great players."
Kurri retired as the most productive European-born player in the NHL, with 601 goals scored and 797 assists collected for 1,386 points in 1,251 regular season NHL games. His playoff success is equally impressive: 106 goals and 127 assists for 233 points in 200 post-season contests. Following his retirement, Kurri suited up for Finland at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and helped his team earn a bronze medal.
Following his playing career, Kurri kept his fingers in hockey. "I did some work as a TV commentator for three or four years. I was coaching for three years after that and now I'm general manager of the Finnish National Team," he states with pride. "I stayed in hockey and it's made it great life."
One other item needs to be mentioned that also has elicited great pride. In 2001, Jari Kurri was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Manager of Publishing and Editorial Services.